Character Building

ConTEXT is Important: A Simple Trick to Strengthen Your Character’s Unique Voice

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See what I did there?

Okay, but you will in a second.

I started talking about building dialogue skills for character development. This is one of the most important things you can do for your characters, as readers know them solely by the dialogue and mannerisms that you assign them. While we can describe facial expressions, external descriptions such as clothes or attributes or even describe gestures, it’s entirely up to the reader’s imagination as to how those are painted. The only way to give your characters a unique voice is, of course, through their voice.

Dialogue and character development will always go hand-in-hand, so your ability to create unique voices for your characters needs to be strong. It’s hard to do this overnight, but the good news is that once you learn how to do it, it’s nearly impossible not to do.

If you’ve wasted enough time on Facebook like I have, you’ve probably seen the “Texts from My Cat” videos. They’re stories that play out as text messages between a human and their cat. These short text stories are available through multiple platforms. At one time, Wattpad introduced their own, called Tap. Though it didn’t seem to take off like the others, I had written one for two of my characters: Telese, the main character of Hubris, is the Lead Diplomat of the Sirens, and Mortimer, a Dark Lord who works closely with the Minions of the Dark World, binds humans in pacts, fulfilling one wish in exchange for all of the goodness, kindness and altruism inside of them.  The Diplomat Sirens are charged with making the rules between the Dark World and the Light World. As I wrote this story, I realized that it really helped to hone in on their unique voices.

Below is the short text exchange between the two characters.

M: Guess who?

Telese: Huh?

Telese: Meg?

M: Nope

Telese: Morgan?

M: Nope

Telese: Miriam?

M: You’re really bad at this, Tilly.

Telese:

Telese: Mortimer, how in all of creation did you do this?

M: Why do you have a phone?

Telese: Why do YOU have a phone?

M: Most likely for the same reason as you: I have human contacts.

Telese: I see.

Telese: Do they ever block your number like I’m doing right now?

M: Speaking of my human contacts….

Telese:

Telese: Dammit!

Telese: What about them, you scummy eel?

M: Do you remember that deal between the Dark World and the Light World?

Telese: Mortimer, I hate you. Which one?

M: That one deal.

Telese: If you can somehow force my phone to recognize you as a contact

Telese: it may be possible for me to figure out how to stab you through yours.

Telese: I wouldn’t give me that kind of time.

M: That one during the War of Northern Aggression.

Telese: The Civil War.

M: Would you like to spend time arguing about the name?

Telese: Good point. What about it?

M: Remember how you suggested that the Dark World shouldn’t use the Minions to introduce unfounded fears to vulnerable humans?

Telese: That wasn’t a suggestion, Mortimer.

M: What do you mean?

Telese: It was a rule.

M: A rule?

Telese: Yes, you know, the things I give you that you have no choice but to adhere to?

Telese: That’s what it was.

M: Was it?

Telese: Mortimer….

M: ….

M: Oops.

Telese: Mortimer!

Telese: Humans use this tactic on their own and it’s a source of misery for the Sirens!

Telese: The Minions are required to use facts!

M: Define “facts”.

Telese: Things that are true, you heathen, don’t trifle with me, what did you do?

M: There may be a coup soon.

Telese: Where?

M: Yes.

Telese: Mortimer, I’m serious!

M: It was a new theory I wanted to test out.

Telese: It’s not new! You were there when it happened! When the negotiations were brokered!

Telese: You

Telese: Were

Telese: There

M: Yes, Tilly, I forgot about it.

M: I’m a busy man, cut me some slack.

Telese: Where is the coup?

M: What coup?

Telese: Mortimer, do you think I’m laughing right now?

M: Have you ever heard of Suriname?

Telese: The coup is in SURINAME?

M: No, I just wanted to know if you’ve ever heard of it.

Telese: Mortimer, I promise, I will kill you.

Telese: And then find a way to bring you back.

Telese: So I can kill you again.

Telese: And for good measure, I will do it again.

Telese: Where. Is. The. Coup?

M: I mean, technically, it hasn’t happened yet.

Telese: Mortimer!

M: Africa.

Telese: “Africa” is not really an answer.

Telese: Africa is a huge continent.

M: Well, I’m not sure EXACTLY where they’re going to happen in Africa.

Telese:

Telese:

Telese: “They”?

M: As in “more than one”, Tilly.

Telese: WHERE ARE THEY?!

M: Well, now, see, that’s YOUR job.

M: Don’t be so lazy.

Telese: I cannot even tell you how little you want to approach me for the next century.

M: Nice chatting with you, Tilly, as always!

M: I have some more work to do now.

M: There’s another experiment being drawn up.

Telese: Mortimer, do NOT.

M:

M: See you soon!

Telese: Mortimer, what are you doing?

Telese: Mortimer, answer me!

Telese: Mortimer!

When you read, it’s easy (I hope) to hear a difference in the characters. You have Telese, who is angry, overworked and not too fond of Mortimer to begin with. Mortimer, however, is more obnoxious, more amused by the chaos he causes. You have no facial expressions to rely on, no motions, nothing that tells you how the characters are feeling. You only have their words. After a couple of lines, you should even be able to read the exchange while rarely having to refer to who’s speaking (I hope).

As you can also see, this can be done in nothing more than a word document for the sake of character development. The trick to writing this sort of thing is to focus on hearing your character clearly. Don’t imagine how you would react. Try to make your characters sound as little like you as possible. Consider your characters real people. Obviously, it can help to imagine them similar to people that you know, characters that you like or hate, celebrities that you like or hate, etc. This may seem like cheating, but after you do it enough, you’ll learn to give your characters their own unique voices without relying on this trick.

Closing Challenge

Write a text conversation between two characters in one of the following situations:

  • Arguing over the details of an event
  • Trying to console somebody when the consoler is awkward and clumsy at doing so
  • Discussing two separate things without realizing it

Post your examples in the comments below!

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